The exchange of insults between Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness in recent weeks has exposed the real crisis within the power-sharing Executive.
After returning from his luxury holiday home in Florida, Robinson chose to turn the temperature up by declaring at a meeting with big business that the DUP were now in favour of scrapping the current veto arrangement in the Executive and replacing it with a weighted majority arrangement.
This proposal would mean in effect overturning the St. Andrew’s Agreement, taking away Sinn Fein’s veto and installing a form of majority rule which Sinn Fein would never agree to. The ensuing attacks between McGuinness and Robinson have continued over a series of contentious issues, not least the devolution of policing and justice powers. The roots of this current fall-out can be traced back to the European elections which saw a significant drop in support away from the DUP away to their new rivals Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).
The TUV took 14% (66,000 votes) away from the DUP, leaving Diane Dodds just about crawling past the finishing line to secure the last MEP seat behind the UUP and Sinn Fein. It was a humiliating experience for the DUP and a real warning that they could continue to lose ground to the TUV, raising the possibility that Sinn Fein could become the biggest party in the North.
While European elections can present an opportunity for a protest vote, it would be a mistake to believe the TUV are a flash in the pan. Turnout for the European elections was historically low for Northern Ireland at 42.8%. Turnout was lowest in working class areas, in particular Protestant working class communities. The vote Allister received is not a floating vote but reflects a deep opposition from many former DUP voters to power-sharing with Sinn Fein. The Chuckle Brothers days are now long gone. Since the summer political recess, the DUP has had to be seen as more hardline and not giving any leeway to Sinn Fein.
With the general election due next spring, this poses serious problems for the future of the Executive. On many issues there is stalemate and paralysis – academic selection, policing and justice, victims compensation, truth commission, the Irish Language Act etc. The DUP and Sinn Fein cannot even agree to the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Strategy consultation document, which is supposed to look at breaking down sectarianism!
The Socialist Party has consistently argued that the sectarian parties in Stormont are incapable of achieving a genuine lasting peace. In fact, these parties have a vested interest in maintaining sectarian division. When it suits them they will attempt to stir up sectarian tensions to divide working class people especially when they are carrying out attacks themselves. The outlines of this can be seen in the arguments put forward by the DUP that cuts should be made to the cross-border bodies and other quangos such as the Equality Commission.
At a recent ‘Assembly on the Road’ meeting on the Ormeau Road in Belfast, Alex Maskey of Sinn Fein, desperately tried to muddy the waters, attempting to put the blame for water charges on the ‘Brits’.
None of the main parties are capable of bringing about a genuine settlement or a lasting peace. What is needed is the development of a mass socialist alternative uniting working class people across the sectarian divide which can cut across the potential for sectarian forces to drag society into sectarian conflict.